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Despite Stigma, Nigerian Parents Demand Justice in Child Sex Cases

All are new cases of suspected child abuse, according to Dr. Musa Shuaibu, a pediatrician

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Child Sex Cases
Mercy Philip (left) with her 8-year-old daughter (right in white) meet with a lawyer in northern Nigeria. VOA
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Mercy Philip will never forget January 12, 2017.

That’s the day she says her 8-year-old daughter walked up to her and asked if she could wash her panties.

Philip asked her daughter why she needed to wash her panties and her daughter said a male neighbor had “climbed on her body” and then told her to wash her panties afterward.

The mother immediately took her daughter to a clinic. And on the same day, Philip and her husband went to the police. The neighbor, who was arrested based on the medical report, was released from jail and is awaiting trial.

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Yet the family’s life has been upended.

They have been ridiculed by people in the community, pressured to drop the charges, and condemned for “trying to ruin a man’s life,” Philip said. When her daughter goes outside, people stare, laugh or throw stones at her, the mother said.

Social stigma

The shame and social stigma attached to sexual abuse stop most families in Nigeria from seeking justice. They usually end up settling cases of child sex abuse through cash payments often quietly negotiated by religious leaders.

“To settle means to forget about it … let sleeping dogs lie,” said Bukola Ajao, the Philips’ lawyer. “Please, we are sorry, but this kind of matter is not something that you just apologize for.”

The most recent data available on child sex abuse in Nigeria is from 2014. That study — from Nigeria’s National Population Commission, the U.N. Children’s Fund and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — revealed that 1-in-4 girls and 1-in-10 boys in Nigeria experience sexual violence before the age of 18.

child sex cases
Doctors at Barau Dikko Teaching Hospital at Kaduna State University say they see abused children on a daily basis. VOA

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The Barau Dikko Teaching Hospital at Kaduna State University in the Kaduna state capital handles requests to provide evidence for suspected child sex abuse. At the time VOA visited the hospital, in the space of 30 minutes, more than five women with children had entered the ward.

All are new cases of suspected child abuse, according to Dr. Musa Shuaibu, a pediatrician.

“Nearly on a daily basis, there would be one form of abuse or the other. And that is quite alarming in view of the fact that quite a negligible fraction, actually get reported to the hospital,” Shuaibu said.

Activists seek new law

Activists are lobbying Kaduna state to approve the federal Child Rights Act of 2003 that mandates a 14-year jail sentence for a child sex abuse conviction and life imprisonment for rape. Eleven states in the north, including Kaduna, have not ratified it. Instead, those states rely on Sharia courts and a colonial-era penal code to prosecute child sex abuse.

Kaduna State Minister of Women and Social Development Hajia Hafsatu Mohammed Baba told VOA the state government is committed to passing it. But the Supreme Sharia Council has said that the federal statute is a Western import and an attempt to restrict Sharia courts.

Meanwhile, families are often left with only difficult choices.

“You know how things are around here. Things like this can never be buried,” said Asabe Musa, whose daughter was molested when she was 5 years old. “This is the kind of story that goes around … maybe when the girl does find someone to marry, someone will go and tell his family what happened to her.”

After hearing about the abuse, relatives of Musa’s husband, who live in northern Nigeria, traveled to Kaduna to speak with Musa about settling the case. Afterwards, they took the child with them, hoping that she would be less stigmatized in a community where she is unknown.

Musa, whose face is lined with sorrow, said she wants her daughter back.

Few go to court

At one orphanage in the center of town, children dance around together in a circle. A slender young woman clenches the hand of her little girl. The woman, who asked to be identified as Ladi, said she can’t go to court as it was her father who raped her young daughter.

“My daughter was covered in blood. I picked her up and just stood there. He was someone I had always respected, so I didn’t say anything to him. I picked her up and went to town with her in the morning,” she said.

She has been running ever since. Going back to her village is not an option, she said, as her father is a chief there.

For the past decade, Hauwa Hassan, the owner, and manager of the orphanage has worked with about 20 families dealing with child sex abuse. She says only three of them took her advice to go to court. Those cases were never concluded.

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child sex cases
A fruit seller is serving a 3-year jail sentence for luring this 7-year-old orphan into his shop and sexually abusing him. VOA

One 7-year-old orphan said he was walking to school when an old fruit seller offered a pear to lure the boy into the back of his shop. The abuse went on until the boy complained to his uncle about pains in his body.

“When it happened, the first thing we did has we stopped him from going out and even from school and kept him at home,” the boy’s uncle, Anas Umar, said, blinking hard to stop the tears.

“I wrote the police statement myself. A lot of my friends first suggested we all go and beat him up, but I didn’t because of what could follow. I can’t take the law into my own hands… I can’t just go and take his sins upon myself,” he added. “Other people were telling me to just leave the matter because the man is too old, but what he did was serious…The judgment passed was not enough, but still, I thank God there was some sort of judgment.”

The court found the fruit seller guilty under a colonial-era sodomy law. He couldn’t pay the 80,000 naira — about $200 — fine so he is serving a 3-year jail sentence.

“That is what he deserved. That will scare others like him,” Umar said. “The judgment passed was not enough but still, I thank God there was some sort of judgment.” (VOA)

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Fistula Epidemic In Nigeria, Cultural Practices To Blame

Some women are born with fistula, which is rare. Other causes include injuries sustained during pelvic surgery and hysterectomies, inflammation and infections in the genital area, and sexual violence.

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Dr. Lengmang is considered one of the most skilled fistula repair surgeons in the world
Due to the stigma, most women say their husbands divorced them as they cannot go back home to face humiliation in their communities. Pixabay

Every morning, Asma’u Muhammadu removes the wet sheets from her bed and sets them out to dry. She opens the door to let in the fresh breezes that will air out the smell of urine in the mud-walled room. Along with the sheets, she brings out wet rags she uses to line her inner garments.

“I am dealing with yoyon fitsari. I don’t know when the urine pours out from my body until I see it leaking down the sides of my legs,” says the 27-year-old woman.

Yoyon fitsari is the term used in the Hausa language to describe vesicovaginal fistula (VVF), a medical condition in which a hole between the birth canal and bladder leaves women unable to control their urine. Women with a hole between the birth canal and the rectum, rectovaginal fistula (RVF) experience uncontrollable leakage of stool. Some women have both VVF and RVF.

Some women are born with fistula, which is rare. Other causes include injuries sustained during pelvic surgery and hysterectomies, inflammation and infections in the genital area, and sexual violence.

a medical condition in which a hole between the birth canal and bladder leaves women unable to control their urine
Yoyon fitsari is the term used in the Hausa language to describe vesicovaginal fistula (VVF). Pixabay

Mary Isu (black hijab) has had 5 fistula repair surgeries. Mary Amani (yellow hijab) has had 4. But they are still leaking.
But the leading cause of fistula is prolonged and obstructed labor. In Nigeria, between 400,000 and 800,00 women are currently living with fistula.

The World Health Organization describes fistula as “the single most dramatic aftermath of prolonged or neglected childbirth,” and estimates more than two million women live with fistula worldwide.

Young marriage only partly to blame

Nigeria has the world’s highest occurrence of obstetric fistula and the Nigerian government says early marriage is largely to blame. Often, the bodies of young wives are not physically prepared for childbirth.

Muhammadu was married at 12 years old and had her first pregnancy at 15. She labored at home for two days before going to the hospital, but it was too late.

“On the fourth day, I gave birth and my baby wasn’t alive,” Muhammadu said. Her mother also has VVF fistula. They take care of each other.

But health workers say other cultural factors contributing to the high occurrence of fistula need to be addressed and focusing on early marriage oversimplifies the problem.

The World Health Organization describes fistula as “the single most dramatic aftermath of prolonged or neglected childbirth
Nigeria has the world’s highest occurrence of obstetric fistula and the Nigerian government says early marriage is largely to blame. Pixabay

“I think we should de-emphasize the issue of early marriage as far as a direct cause of VVF is concerned,” says Dr. Bello Lawal, a fistula surgeon and the chief medical director at the Maryam Abacha Women and Children Hospital, the only one in the northwestern state of Sokoto that performs fistula repair surgeries.

“There are some traditional practices whereby a surgical procedure is carried out on a woman who is supposed to have a condition known as goriya, which is supposed to be a growth in the private part, that is supposed to be removed by the traditional barber, and in the process, they usually cause damage to the bladder or they cause damage to the rectum, and that can lead to recto-vaginal fistula or vesicovaginal fistula,” Lawal explains.

Iliyasu Ningi, a wanzami (traditional barber) holds up the instruments that he uses to perform yankan gishiri. It’s a cultural practice similiar to female genital mutilation where a cut is made on the vaginal wall.
Iliyasu Ningi, a wanzami (traditional barber) holds up the instruments that he uses to perform yankan gishiri. It’s a cultural practice similiar to female genital mutilation where a cut is made on the vaginal wall.
Traditionally in Hausa culture, barbers are called to remove goiters, remove enlarged tonsils, perform male circumcision and execute yankan gishiri, similar to female genital mutilation.

Goriya is said to be a tumor-like blockage of vaginal tissue, but Dr. Lawal said, “There is no tumor. Most of these cases, which we call goriya, are usually psychological cases.” Goriya is a form of the pseudoscience that has led to millions of women developing VVF.

The practice is also performed in cases of infertility.

Lack of skilled doctors

Many women have had several failed fistula repair surgeries. Due to the stigma, most of them say their husbands divorced them. Dozens of former fistula patients live at the back of the Maryam Abacha Women and Children Hospital. They say they cannot go back home to face humiliation in their communities.

Only about a dozen doctors in Nigeria are skilled enough to perform the intricate fistula repair surgery, like Dr. Sunday Lengmang, a surgeon at the ECWA Evangel VVF Center in Jos.

this means the doctors working in this area must be highly motivated.
Fistula affects the poorest of the poor in the poorest countries of the world. Pixabay

Lengmang is considered one of the most skilled fistula repair surgeons in the world and the Evangel VVF Center is the only hospital in Nigeria that performs urinary diversion surgeries to handle complex fistula cases.

“Fistula affects the poorest of the poor in the poorest countries of the world,” he said, adding that this means the doctors working in this area must be highly motivated.

“But apart from that, we also have the issue of the difficulty in finding doctors who have the skills,” he said.

Data of Nigeria Fistula

With about 12,000 new cases reported around the country each year, the 14 Nigerian hospitals that perform repair surgeries are only able to handle about 5,000 operations, leaving an enormous backlog. USAID’s Fistula Care Plus says about 200,000 women in Nigeria are waiting for fistula surgeries.

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Hospitals mostly rely on funding from outside of Nigeria. Donations fund the Evangel VVF Center, where surgeries are free of charge for patients. At other facilities, patients bear some of the cost of the surgery, which is about $300.

In her remote village, Muhammadu says her husband has stayed with her, despite her condition, and she is content. He has told her not to go the hospital for treatment since the fistula has not affected her ability to have babies. She has two daughters.

She wants the fistula to go away, but says it is “destined by God to happen that way.” (VOA)